By THOMAS BEAUMONT and STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
BOSTON (AP) -- With protests at U.S. embassies and four Americans dead, Mitt Romney is suddenly facing a presidential election focused on a foreign policy crisis he gambled wouldn't happen.
It did -- and at a bad time for the GOP hopeful. Momentum in the race is on President Barack Obama's side and Republicans are fretting over the state of their nominee's campaign.
To shift the trajectory, Romney's plan boils down to this: Spend big money on TV and work harder.
It's unclear how long this round of Middle East unrest will last, and Romney's aides concede the former businessman may struggle to gain a political advantage should anti-American violence continue deep into the fall.
Despite internal concerns, Romney is publicly confident and dismissed polls that show him behind during an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos.
"You say I'm behind today," Romney told Stephanopoulos. "These polls are all within the margin of error. And we're making progress. I'm going up against someone who's been in office for four years and whose record, as you pointed out from the beginning is really pretty bad."
LIMITED FOREIGN POLICY EXPERIENCE
Untested on the international stage and with limited foreign policy experience, Romney staked his entire rationale for his candidacy on the notion that he can fix the nation's dour economy given his decades of work in the private sector. He doubled down on that strategy when he chose as his running mate House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman with little international affairs experience.
Then, the unrest in Egypt and Libya flared, and Romney accused Obama of apologizing for America, his first statement mischaracterizing events in Cairo before all the facts were known, including that a beloved U.S. ambassador to Libya had died. Romney drew criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Clearly mindful of his foreign policy vulnerabilities, the Romney campaign arranged for Sen. John McCain to attack Obama's foreign policy in a national interview on Thursday as Romney moved back to his comfort zone: the economy.
"Look, the nation is pretty evenly divided. And it ultimately is the outcome is decided by the people in the middle. A lot of them won't make their mind up until the very, very last moment," Romney told Stephanopoulos. "And I believe that as they look at who they believe can get this economy strong again and create jobs again and rising wages and take home pay for middle-income families, they're going to say, I've got the best prospects for doing that. And I'll get their nod."
Romney's foreign policy bobble was the latest in a series of recent missteps. He stumbled through a summer trip abroad that had been intended to show he could lead on the world stage. Then, he became the first Republican since 1952 to accept his party's nomination without mentioning war, giving Democrats an opening to criticize and raising eyebrows among Republicans. Romney also took heat for actor Clint Eastwood's rambling convention appearance.
And, with his massive amounts of ad money failing to break open the race, some Republicans have expressed worry that Romney may be starting to let the campaign get away from him. Others are pushing him to explain more clearly what he would do as president.
"Romney's campaign got hung up on the question of `Are you better off than you were four years ago?' His message should be, `I can make you better off and here's how,"' said Republican pollster John McLaughlin. He pointed to Romney's pledge to create 12 million new jobs as president and added: "We need to hear specific goals and a reasonable expectation of how to get there."
Polls nationally and in key states show Obama slightly ahead, and the clock is ticking down on opportunities for Romney to seize momentum. With the pressure on, he is trying to gain the upper-hand by intensifying television advertising and engaging more with voters.
"Mitt Romney is the ultimate pressure player," said GOP strategist Phil Musser, a senior adviser to Romney's 2008 campaign. "The higher the stakes, the more on the line, I can't think of an instance where he didn't rise to the challenge."
Romney is devoting valuable hours preparing for a series of debates in October that have suddenly taken on new significance; twice in the last week he has holed up with advisers and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who plays Obama in the sessions.
"There are only a few major events left that can shift the dynamic of this race," said Charlie Black, an informal Romney adviser. "He is right to spend that time preparing for the debates."
TV AD WAR
Obama had barely accepted the nomination last week when Romney unleashed a $4 million-plus blizzard of new TV ads in the most competitive states. The Republican expanded his footprint into Democratic-leaning Wisconsin in hopes of blazing more paths to reaching the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. He also started advertising on cable television networks that cater more to female viewers as he looks to narrow Obama's advantage among women.
Expect even more in the coming days as Romney dips into his huge cash stockpile. At the end of August, Romney, the Republican National Committee and state parties were sitting on a combined $169 million. It's expected to be more than Obama and his team, which hasn't yet released their cash figure. Romney has spent less than $79 million on television advertising, compared to Obama's $219 million. Combined with Romney allies' help, the GOP side actually has outspent Obama and his allies so far.
Over the past week, Romney has hit the campaign trail energized and animated. And in Ohio, Romney struck an empathetic tone as he sought to connect with voters struggling with a tough economy.
"These are real families. These are real people," Romney said. "I was with a miner who said, `Please help me keep my job."'
Observers have noticed a change in the candidate who struggles to connect with his audiences and is tagged by critics as less than charismatic and even out of touch.
"He's turned into a different person," said Lillian Glass, a Los Angeles-based body language expert. "He's become more passionate, more emotional, more dynamic, a communicator."
PRESIDENT'S NARROW LEAD
That burst of enthusiasm dovetailed with a round of national polls that showed Obama opening up a slight lead in what had been a deadlocked race -- causing a round of second-guessing among Republican insiders about the state of the campaign.
"Romney can still win but few at bats left," GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, who worked for Romney in 2008, wrote on Twitter. "Still think an Obama 2nd term (equals) disaster. Just haven't heard why Romney would be better. I remain hopeful."
Amid the angst, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse released a post-convention memo that called Obama's uptick "a sugar high," and added: "Don't get too worked up about the latest polling."
Romney aides are cautioning Republican naysayers to be patient, arguing that he is within striking distance in each of the handful of states where the two campaigns are focusing their travel time, campaign staff and advertising dollars. They say if Romney can stay close or make gains, undecided voters will break for the challenger.
The campaign and the candidate's posture these days are reminiscent of how Romney acted and the strategy he employed last winter during the primary season after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich soundly beat him in South Carolina.
Romney responded by sharpening his attacks in next-up Florida, and he benefited as an outside group unleashed millions of dollars of television advertising against Gingrich. Romney also turned in a strong debate performance just before the primary. Romney ended up winning Florida and the nomination.
The next few weeks will determine whether he can do the same against Obama.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy in New York and Ben Feller in Jacksonville, Fla., contributed to this report.